Thursday, 31 March 2011

Orange 2011: The road to wanting (Law-Yone)

Another Orange longlister, and yet another country - this time we are in Burma and Thailand with Wendy Law-Yone's The road to Wanting.

The book opens in Wanting on the Chinese/Burmese border with an intriguing incident. A girl is trying to commit suicide, by hanging herself in a hotel. But as she is just about to commit the deed, she is interrupted, hearing that a Mr Jiang has committed suicide himself. Originally from Burma, the girl Na Ga has been abandoned by her American lover who has returned to the United States; he has sent her back to Burma with the care of Mr Jiang as her guide to her "home". But what is her home? The story becomes more complex; it transpires that Na Ga was uprooted at an early age from her home in Burma - sold, and moved between homes, eventually ending up as a companion to another child. After that, the political situation deteriorated and she was tricked into prostitution in Thailand. The prostitutes are deported to Burma after a police raid, and the rich American lover was her escape from that. But he doesn't exactly treat her with respect, and his abandonment means that she is merely back in the situation that she sought to escape.

The mysterious start combined with the gradual revealing of facts about Na Ga's past along with the telling of her story in the present made this a compelling read as I tried to piece together what had happened and willing her to get to a better situation in life. It's another tale that incorporates difficult and unpleasant issues, and they are not sentimentalised in anyway at all, so at times it is a gruelling read, but I did not find that that detracted from what I felt to be an excellent novel.

I'm going to stick my neck out and say that I think this is the best Orange 2011 Longlisted title that I've read so far this year (and I've now read 11 of them). It makes me keen to seek out the other two novels by Wendy Law-Yone to see how they compare. (Has anyone read either of her other books, or even this one?)

Many thanks to Fiona from Vintage at Random House for sending me this to read.

The musical Bernard the bear

He does a pretty good job on Beethoven...

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Orange 2011: A visit from the goon squad (Egan)

My seventh Orange read from the longlist (which takes me to halfway through, since I had read three titles before it was announced) is set in America: A visit from the goon squad by Jennifer Egan. It was another contrasting read: I really feel that the Orange list this year is full of diversity, it may seem to deal with a lot of troublesome subjects but the ten books that I have read so far are all very varied. This means that while I have liked some of the titles immensely, and enjoyed some more than others, I have struggled through some of them, this one included (although, I am suffering from a cold which may have impaired my concentration).

It opened with an episode of theft, by one of the main characters, Sasha, which I found a bit disturbing and did nothing to make me sympathetic towards her (she steals a purse from a bag in some women's toilets, and it is then revealed that she has a history of doing this. As I read the book, I always had the episode in my mind whenever I read about her. The book is also about Bennie, a record executive, whom Sasha works for. And it weaves a tale that, despite not getting on well with the book myself, I could see was quite masterful - many characters, over several decades and all though this could have easily become disparate it all linked together successfully. The different chapters use different voices - first, second, third person, interviews, streams of consciousness, even a powerpoint presentation - all pretty original. I'm just afraid that it didn't draw me in - whether it was because of the mishmash of format or whether it was because I didn't like the characters enough.

I am not sure that I have seen any reviews of this yet on the blogs that I have in my google-reader (apologies if I've missed one) - have any of my readers read it yet, and if so what did you like/dislike about it? I'd really be interested to know your thoughts.

Thanks to Sam from Corsair/Constable publishing for giving me the opportunity to read this one.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Baking from the cupboards 10

Yes, there is a tenth baking from the cupboards, and we're still going strong. This week I finally used up the tin of pumpkin puree, that I couldn't even remember buying, let alone what I had in mind. Somehow I didn't fancy making a pumpkin pie, but I dug around on the internet and found this recipe. It smells AMAZING, partly due to the fact that I was a bit heavy handed with the nutmeg. I used cranberries in it, and walnuts, and just a straightforward butter icing rather than the cream cheese icing suggested. The butter icing isn't the day glo colour in the picture I hasten to add, I think that was just a result of the amazing early morning sunshine when I took the snap.
This week's biscuits were Easter biscuits from a cookie baking book that a friend gave me quite a few years ago now, when I was doing my masters and eating A LOT of biscuits along the way. It's not Easter yet, but it is Lent. There was a slight deviation from the recipe as I didn't have any mixed peel, so I just left that out, and it enabled me to finish off a small number of currents which were languishing in the cupboard.
And finally, I met up with a blogger friend who celebrates a significant birthday this week at the weekend (more about that soon), and baked her some birthday shortbread. I took this picture in case they got broken en route. (and yes, I did sprinkle some edible glitter on them!). Happy Birthday Claire!

Various of you have commented saying that you wish I would use up the things from your comments, and I've had a couple of requests for suggestions of things to make in the last week:

Zehra at a Life in writing asked me what to do with a load of kiwi fruits that needed using up; my first rather boring suggestion was fruit salad, but I thought a bit harder and came up with this recipe for a ginger cheesecake with kiwi fruit - I so want to give this one a go myself.

Geraldine in the comments on my last post wondered if there was anything that she could do with some banana flavoured Nesquik sitting in her cupboard. I thought a chocolate cake with banana custard flavoured icing would be nice, extending the principle of my custard cake, but I know her husband doesn't like chocolate. So I suggested a banana cake with banana Nesquik icing, or these biscuits which were on the Nesquik website.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Orange 2011: Jamrach's menagerie (Carol Birch)

I have greatly enjoyed a couple of Carol Birch's novels in the last few years, which I came across because they were published by Virago, a favourite publishing house. So I was excited to see her on the Orange longlist, although she has now moved to Canongate, and I was extremely lucky to be able to acquire a copy courtesy of Jennifer there. And, before I go on to say anything about the writing, I want to say that this is the most aesthetically book-as-object appealing Orange longlisted title that has come through my hands this year. It shouldn't make a difference but it does. This title is a paperback, with lovely thick matt covers, with folded in flaps which make it much more substantial.

Onto the content! Set in Victorian London this rather gripping novel follows the life of Jaffy, who we meet as a child following an encounter in the streets with a tiger, from Mr Jamrach's menagerie. He starts to work for Mr Jamrach and takes on a commission to find for the menagerie a sea-dragon which is thought to live in the Indian Ocean. This turns the book into a seafaring adventure as things do not proceed straightforwardly.

What I liked best about this book is the eye for detail which really makes you feel like you are also witnessing the scenes of Victorian London and out on the open sea. I particularly liked the insight into 19th century working class life which was executed particularly successfully and reminded me of Birch's descriptions of 20th century working class life in Turn again home (which remains my favourite of her books).

"Blood and brine ran down the pavement into the gutters and was sucked into the mush under the barrows that got trodden all day long up and down, up and down, into your house, up the stairs, into your room. My toes slid through it in a familiar way, but it was better than shitty Thames mud any day.
Flypapers hung over every door and every barrow. Each one was black and rough with a million flies, but it made no difference. A million more danced happily about in the air and walked on the tripe which the butcher's assistant had sliced so thinly and carefully that morning and placed in the window".

Gruesome isn't it?
I'm not sure why this works for me here, when I found the level of detail off-putting in The memory of love, but it just does. Not my favourite story of the Oranges that I've read so far, perhaps because I tend to prefer female centred books, but oh so well written and an old fashionedly good story.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Orange 2011: The memory of love (Forna)

I'm afraid that The memory of love, my fifth Orange read since the longlist was announce, is the first that has made me stall a bit. I've eventually made my way through it, but I didn't enjoy it as much as the first four which I could not put down. That's not to say it isn't an excellent novel and extremely well written- it's got 8 reviews on Amazon, all of which are 5*, and excellent critical acclaim on the back cover - it just wasn't the sort of book that I usually enjoy. Being more specific, if you like wordy, literary novels, along the lines of Kiran Desai, then I am sure you will get on far better than me - I don't, and it felt like hard work to finish it.

It's another globe-trotting Orange, set in Sierra Leone following the Civil War, and at the end of the twentieth century, and centres around the characters of Kai, a young surgeon, Elias, a former university lecturer who is in hospital, and Adrian, a psychiatrist from Britain.

I think I struggled most with the dense, descriptive prose which just seemed to slow the pace down for me. For example, this paragraph, which is beautifully written, is an example of how I felt that the detail got in the way of the events - rather than stopping for a snack of chocolate cookies...

"In the kitchen he finds a packet of chocolate chip cookies. The cookies are soft and dusty. The chocolate has melted, seepred into the stratum and hardened. They eat the cookies in place of supper, washing the taste away with whisky".

Please don't be put off by my inability to cope with too much description!

Thanks to Alice from Bloomsbury for sending me this one.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Orange 2011: The london train (Hadley)

My fourth Orange read of the longlist season is the first non-debut novel that I've read from the list. And it's by an author whose work I've encountered before: Tessa Hadley is also the author of The master bedroom which I read a couple of years ago. That, like this novel, The London train, was a beautifully observed book.

The London train has quite a complicated plot, and rather than provide a synopsis here on this post, I am simply going to provide you with the text from the inside of the dustwrapper:

The London Train is a novel in two parts, separate but wound together around a single moment, examining in vivid detail two lives stretched between two cities. Paul lives in the Welsh countryside with his wife Elise, and their two young children. The day after his mother dies he learns that his eldest daughter Pia, who was living with his ex-wife in London, has moved out from home and gone missing. He sets out in search of Pia, and when he eventually finds her, living with her lover in a chaotic flat in a tower block in King's Cross, he thinks at first he wants to rescue her. But the search for his daughter begins a period of unrest and indecision for Paul: he is drawn closer to the hub of London, to the excitements of a life lived in jeopardy, to Pia’s fragile new family. Paul’s a pessimist; when a heat wave scorches the capital week after week he fears that they are all ‘sleep-walking to the edge of a great pit, like spoiled trusting children’.

In the opposite direction, Cora is moving back to Cardiff, to the house she has inherited from her parents. She is escaping her marriage, and the constrictions and disappointments of her life in London. At work in the local library, she is interrupted by a telephone call from her sister-in-law and best friend, to say that her husband has disappeared.

Connecting both stories is the London train, and a chance meeting that will have immediate and far-reaching consequences for both Paul and for Cora."

Essentially this is a book of two parts - Paul's story in the first half of the book, and at least the first half of Cora's in the second half of the book are so distinct and separate that rather than completely enjoying reading the book, I spent a lot of time wondering how they would join together; it did feel a little bit like I was just waiting for the arrival of Cora (since this had been given away in the blurb on the inside of the jacket). I did however love the details of the lives of Paul and Cora who were extremely believable characters, not necessarily likeable, but fascinating in their inadequacies as human beings involved in relationships. There was plenty happening in this book, so I would definitely recommend it to those of you who like plot, and it was great when the two stories did finally come together.

Many thanks to Jonathan Cape for sending me this book.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Orange 2011: The pleasure-seekers (Tishana Doshi)

From Nigeria, to Canada, and now to India and Wales, this year's Orange Prize longlist has certainly had me globe-trotting. And a third book which I found extremely enjoyable: The pleasure-seekers, by Tishana Doshi. Like the other two, it is also a debut novel (there are 7 first novels in total on the Orange longlist)

It is the late 1960s. Babo Patel has left his family and betrothed in Madras to seek his fortune in London. After an initial culture-shock, getting over the fact that he no longer has to live closely in his family's pockets, and starting to drink, and eat meat, both forbidden by his Jain background, he settles down, and almost immediately falls in love, with Sian, a beautiful Welsh girl who has gone to London in search of excitement. The minimal family that Babo has in London gain wind of this and inform his parents back at home, who summon him back under false pretences. Whilst this could have been the end of the story before it has even begun, Babo is adament that he will marry Sian, and his parents, sensing his seriousness bargain with him - they can marry, but only after a separation of six months, and only if Sian comes to India to live for the first two years of their marriage.

The story at first centres around Babo and Sian as they settle down into their marriage, making a visit to Wales for Christmas, and having their children. But the years pass, and their children grow up and they then become the focus of the book. Mayuri and Bean, the two daughters find their ways in the world. It was very much a book of two halves - I was absolutely riveted by the tale of Babo and Sian, but that of Mayuri and Bean and their respective love lifes (and lack of) just didn't seem to awake my attention so much. I still enjoyed the book overall, it was just that the first part was so very very good, that the rest of it didn't quite compare.

Like the last two books I've read from the Orange longlist, I found this immensely readable. The characters and settings were vibrant and colourful and I was intrigued to see where the story was going. The Indian characters in particular stood out. I loved the way that it dealt with the merging of two very different cultures. Again, it might not appeal to somebody who likes a lot of plot in their books, but being less that way inclined, and more interested in books about people I really enjoyed it. And again, I had not heard of it previously, and am not sure that I would have picked it up without its Orange endorsement.

Many thanks to Alice at Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

Bernard the bear returns

Bernard the bear seem to gain a lot of fans last week when he featured in his swimming gear. Owing to the absence of domestic arts again this week (for various reasons, some of which will become clear in the next few weeks and months), we asked him last night if he'd like to share a couple of things that he's been up to over the last seven days.

He wanted to make clear, that although he might have a furry brain, he is quite intelligent, so he chose this picture of him helping K with his open university course. There won't be many bears with a maths degree in 7 years time....

He said that the other highlight of his week was our trip to Exeter at the weekend, particularly when he was allowed to drive the car.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Orange 2011: Annabel (Kathleen Winter)

My second Orange of 2011 is another debut novel and another novel dealing with an issue alien to me - Annabel by Kathleen Winter is the story of a hermaphrodite. The principle character, Annabel/Wayne is born of indeterminate sex, having a vagina, a tiny penis and one testicle. Is he/she a boy or a girl? The mother can't decide, but eventually his father decides that he is a boy and medical procedures are performed to cement this decision. Throughout his childhood, his mother cannot quite come to accept this, and frequently thinks of Wayne as her daughter. Whether it is this, or whether Wayne actually is a girl, causes issues as he grows up - he desires a beautiful swimsuit rather than involvement in the boyish pursuits that his father tries to inflict on him.

I didn't think that the subject matter would really appeal to me, but it was something that I didn't know anything about really, and I found Winter's treatment of it persuasive, and it gave a fascinating insight into the nature of identity - it wasn't just a look at Annabel/Wayne's feelings but at those of his parents. And I was interested to know how the story would play out. I also found the stark setting of Labrador, Canada captured my attention, and reminded me a little of some of Margaret Atwood's Canadian writing. I've seen some comparisons made with Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, but I haven't read that so I can't offer an opinion on that! Beautiful writing too I thought.

I did find that the book went a little bit off the boil in the last third; its success in the first half was largely due to the exploration of hermaphroditism, and the knowledge that eventually Wayne would discover what had happened to him. Winter tried to introduce more of a plot to bring the book to a close, but I didn't think that that quite worked as well as the first half.

Again, it's a little too early in my longlist reading for me to discern whether or not I think it will make it onto the shortlist, but I am once more glad that the novel I have just finished made it onto the longlist as I found it worth reading and would probably not have come across it otherwise. I also passed my copy this morning onto a colleague who was MOST dubious about it, saying that the subject matter DID NOT appeal at all...however, when she turned up at lunchtime to relieve me she said that she could not put it down and also used the word "beautiful".

This title is published by Jonathon Cape, and I am very grateful to Fiona from Random House sending me a copy to read.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Baking from the cupboards 9

Another week, and I'm still baking from my cupboards. This week I made a wonderful cake that I had been looking forward to trying for a little while - a custard sponge sandwich. (I did have to buy a 30p bar of chocolate for the frosting but that seems quite reasonable since it was immediately used and thus not filling up the cupboards, and I used quite a large amount of the custard powder that I have sitting in the cupboards.
It's a vanilla custard powder flavoured sponge, filled with a custard flavoured buttercream and topped with a mixture of golden syrup and chocolate.
Unfortunately, I was tired when I made it, and longing for the sofa, I filled the cake before it was entirely cool. Sadly, my filling was very soon more on the outside of the cake than on the inside...but it still tastes good. And it gave me a chance to use my edible gold stars.

For K's packed lunches this week, I defrosted the cookie dough that has been in the freezer since easily before Christmas. I have to say that it is now a complete mystery to me what sort of cookies they are. They smell strongly of cinnamon, and there are obviously raisins in it, but it looks as though there could also be some crunchy peanut butter. Anyway, mystery freezer cookies = minimum effort and more space in the freezer! They will also remain a mystery to the readers of this blog as the box of them disappeared to the office before I took a picture. Ho hum.

We also ran out of cereal this week, so I decided to use up some odds and ends of packets of nuts and make a nutty granola - I modified slightly the recipe that I used for Christmas granola.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Orange 2011: The secret lives of Baba Segi's wives (Lola Shoneyin)

I am the lucky recipient of a number of the Orange longlist titles from some kind publishers, and when they've all trickled in, I shall treat you to a picture of them. But, as soon as the longlist was announced, I was suddenly excited to read some contemporary women's fiction, and knew that I would fall on whichever one landed on my doorstep first. That title was The secret lives of Baba Segi's wives by Lola Shoneyin and I'm happy to report that it got my Orange 2011 reading off to an excellent start.

This captivating domestic tale, set in Nigeria, is the story of Baba Segni and his four wives. We meet them shortly after the fourth wife has joined the family; Bolanle is somewhat different to the other three wives, being a university graduate. But, she isn't exempt from the need to provide her husband with children. The other wives have managed it, so why can't she? Is it because she had an abortion after being raped as a teenager?

Bolanle is a likeable character, rather more so than the other three wives or Baba Segni - perhaps it was because I identified with her as a university graduate, and felt for her plight in supposedly letting her husband down. The book is narrated by different wives in turn, as well as Baba Segni and his driver, which was a little confusing at times and it didn't make the other wives stand out as clearly in my mind, but it worked well as a story-telling device.

What I liked about this book, apart from the fact that I didn't work out how the story would resolve itself until very near to the end, was the insight it gave into the dynamics of a polygamous marriage - the relationships between the wives is understandably tense at times but there are also occasional moments of mutual support, such as when Bolanle is able to use her superior life-knowledge to assist another wife who is suffering greatly from constipation. It is at times comic, so even if my western perspective on polygamy and women's freedom made me recoil in horror from the concept of polygamy, I found myself laughing out loud at some of the episodes in the book. The blend of humour with the story was just right.

I haven't read enough of the other books to say whether I think it is shortlist/prizewinner material or not, but I will stick my neck out to say that it is such an enjoyable read that it is worth seeking out even if it doesn't make it into the final cut.

Many thanks to Anne-Marie from Serpent's Tail for providing me with my copy.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Often on a Thursday morning, which is my morning off, I share my latest domestic arts project. But the enormous cross stitch hasn't made much progress, and although I've made a veggie spag bol for dinner, it isn't terribly attractive, and I guess you aren't terribly interested in pictures of my hoovering.

I have however swum 5km this morning (200 lengths of a 25 m pool); some of you know that I have somewhat recklessly decided, amid wedding planning, to do a marathon swim (10km in a lake...)(28th May...) to raise some more money for charity - more on this in due course. Today, as part of my training I had to swim 5km which was further than I've ever swum. It wasn't too bad and even the boredom was tolerable - it took me 95 minutes.

When I got home, I saw that Bernard the bear was obviously a little disappointed that he hadn't been quick enough off the mark to join me...

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Orange Longlist 2011

It can't have really escaped anyone's attention that today saw the announcement of the 2011 Orange Longlist. As I said last year, the Orange prize is something that interests me especially because it always manages to introduce me to authors that are new to me as well as often featuring books by authors which I love. I love the focus on women's literature too, since often the Booker prize has been dominated by men.

This year's list caught me unawares - I haven't read so much modern fiction in the last few months and the only book I thought would be a contender was the latest Linda Grant, which hasn't even made it on the list. Looking at the list, I have only read Room by Emma Donaghue (which I thought was far too miserable in theme to be enjoyable), and I gave up on The swimmer (mainly because I recall it having very small print despite being a title which was of obvious interest to me). I found Repeat it today with tears absolutely gripping, although again of disturbing subject matter and enjoyed Grace Williams says it loud enormously, although again its theme was not exactly feel good! As the Guardian article says, this years list tackles "Difficult subjects" and that is certainly my feeling of the three that I have finished.

Here is the list:

  • Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) - Sudanese; 3rd Novel
  • Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (Canongate) - British; 10th Novel
  • Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador) - Irish; 7th Novel
  • The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi (Bloomsbury) - Indian; 1st Novel
  • Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty (Faber and Faber) - British; 6th Novel
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Corsair) - American; 4th Novel
  • The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury) - British/Sierra Leonean; 3rd Novel
  • The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape) - British; 4th Novel
  • Grace Williams Says it Loud by Emma Henderson (Sceptre) - British; 1st Novel
  • The Seas by Samantha Hunt (Corsair) - American; 1st Novel
  • The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna (Faber and Faber) - British; 2nd Novel
  • Great House by Nicole Krauss (Viking) - American; 3rd Novel
  • The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone (Chatto & Windus) - American; 3rd Novel
  • The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) - Serbian/American; 1st Novel
  • The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (Viking) - American; 1st Novel
  • Repeat it Today with Tears by Anne Peile (Serpent's Tail) - British; 1st Novel
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Chatto & Windus) - American; 1st Novel
  • The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Serpent's Tail) - British/Nigerian; 1st Novel
  • The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (Harper Press) - British; 4th Novel
  • Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Jonathan Cape) - Canadian; 1st Novel
I am intrigued to read "Whatever you love" to compare it to Still Missing. I love Aboulela, so I hope to be able to read that one. I think The seas by Samantha Hunt also sounds interesting.

Anyway, as usual I am prepared to be educated, and I am hoping to read as many of the titles as possible (I won't promise to read them all, as I am not sure that they will all appeal, plus it may be difficult for me to get hold of them). I have been in touch with some kind publishers today and I have several titles on the way! I will look out for others in the library and attempt to beg or borrow (just not steal) any others that I can. I am sure I will discover some gems along the way.

It will be nice to focus a bit more on books again on this blog over the next couple of months, so please do pop in, particularly if you are also going to read some Orange books. And afterwards, I might even resume my project of reading previous Orange longlisted titles under my "Orange Wednesday" feature.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Baking from the cupboards 8

Who can believe that I have been baking from the cupboards for 8 weeks, and I'm still not out of either ideas or things to bake with?! I haven't even had to buy any more sugar yet! Only two bakes this week, due to the absence of K, and the only thing that I really managed to use up was 1/3 packet of cranberries. You see, I'd bought bananas, but with only me around to eat them, they went black before they were all used up, so I had to make something banana-y. I'd wanted to try a banana and cranberry loaf from the M and S Easy Baking book for a while, and these little cakes were my version:

The original called for mixed peel, and nuts alongside the cranberries, but I just upped the amount of cranberries. They were also flavoured with orange zest, and given an extra zing with some icing made from orange juice. It also pleased me that they required vegetable oil rather than butter, which meant that I could finish off a bottle of vegetable oil that I hadn't used for ages (as I use olive in my cooking). K didn't manage to buy anything for his co-workers whilst away, and as I'd ended up with 24 of these, he took them in to share.

Not sure if he will share the melt in the your mouth shortbread Happy Hippopotami that I made for his lunchboxes this week - aren't they cute?

Monday, 14 March 2011

Goodnight Mr Tom (Michelle Magorian) and children's wartime literature

A bit of a double post today. Ceri from Riot Communications recently sent me a copy of Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian; it's a new special edition published by Puffin books to celebrate 30 years since it was issued.

How good to have a chance to read this book again. It tells the story of the evacuee Will, a boy from the city, who is billeted in a village with the somewhat gruff Mr Thomas Oakley. Will has had a somewhat traumatic childhood and it takes him a while to settle in, but Mr Tom does wonderful things for the boy, providing new clothes, good food and above all friendship and love. Mr Tom also learns from the child, rediscovering the pleasure of having someone else to look out for and care about. It sounds a bit cheesy, but the story of this unlikely relationship is set within vivid descriptions of what it is like to live as a child in wartime Britain.

As part of reading about the book, I saw that it has been made into a stage play, and I am gutted to have missed it when it came to High Wycombe (the nearest location to me) - but if you live near any of the other theatres on the tour schedule and have a chance to go and see it please let me know what you think.

Rereading this book also got me thinking about children's wartime stories. There are so many of them! At the end of the month, I am looking forward to going to see the Once upon a wartime exhibition at the Imperial War Museum with Paperback Reader Claire which brings 5 wartime books to life (including Carrie's War (which is one of my favourites), War Horse (which I thought made a fantastic stage adaption), The silver sword (something I haven't read for years which I really must return to), The machine gunners (another classic, although I didn't come to it until my teenage years) and the only one that I haven't read - Little soldier). Rambling Fancy wrote about the exhibition recently too which was what brought it to my attention.

I have a couple of wartime children's books on my TBR at present by two particularly key wartime-childrens-books writers (Blitz Cat (Robert Westall) and Private Peaceful (Michael Morpurgo) and hope to read them in the next couple of weeks, in anticipation of visiting the IWM. But what I wanted to do was ask you what your favourite (s) children's wartime themed book is? I don't want to make a complete list of books (although I might do in due course), but I'd love to know what people feel the best one's are. For me, Goodnight Mr Tom certainly ranks highly, but I think I slightly prefer Michelle Magorian's slightly more female novel, Back home. I also love the way that wartime features in soe many of Noel Streatfeild's books, as backdrop more than anything else. Do share with me!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

My enormous cross stitch

I mentioned my large cross stitch project the other day, and various people asked me about it, so I thought I'd show you what I mean. (I also love Danielle's posts over at A work in Progress where she quite literally reveals the progress of her stitching, so I hope she doesn't mind me borrowing the idea as I think I will be working on this for the rest of the year).

It's a Forever Friends Alphabet sampler, which will measure 30 x 36 cm when complete. It has the whole alphabet, plus 8 little pictures, and a quite extensive border. This is the size of the fabric:
This is the pattern:
And this is the little section that I've been working on so far - I started (but did not finish) the duck, as he was in the centre. I shall complete the little bear and then go back to him. I must ensure that I don't leave the backstitching until the end as there will be absolutely miles of it; I must try to complete each picture/letter as I go...

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Library loot

The Oxford Central Library reopened on Monday after being shut for 3 weeks whilst they refurbished the entrance hall and installed self-issue. Despite worrying that I would be unable to cope without my library "fix", I did actually survive quite easily and could have gone another week or two, having a large amount of Virago loot to work my way through as well as a full complement of library books on both of our cards.

The library smells a lot of new carpet, and the entrance is very similar to the other libraries around the county which have already gone with self-issue: popular books arranged attractively near the front (although this meant that one of the books I wanted was there, and I hunted fruitlessly through the main collection for it, only spotting it on the way out...). Self-issue will take a while for people to get their heads around, even with helpful members of staff, and I think there are a couple of kinks in the system which they will need to iron out in due course. So I shall wait and see what happens!

Anyway, I was in there about an hour and a half after it opened again and got myself lots of lovely books, including two reservations that I had been waiting for:

I read Twenty One Locks on Tuesday and found it a quirky little book.

I am really looking forward to reading Periodic Tales; I loved Chemistry A-Level and in another life might have studied Chemistry at university. I have just embarked on an Open University short course in chemistry which I am finding fascinating!

I chose quite a few books too:
The bottom three are all from the Little Black Dress imprint which is a bit like an updated version of Mills and Boon; easy and predictable non strenuous reading.
I have been waiting to read Betrayal (Helen Dunmore) for ages and hope that it will be as good as The siege.
Chocolate wars about the history of Cadbury has been mentioned by a number of people across the blogosphere; I am fascinated by the history of philanthropic companies such as these.
Wedding Readings is to inspire me with my wedding planning at the moment; I intend to make a speech at my wedding lunch and am on the look out for a good quote or piece of prose to include.
Cooking for food allergies (Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne) is a fascinating read as it explains the purpose of various ingredients used in cooking and baking (such as eggs, dairy, gluten) in order to choose appropriate replacements. As someone who avoids gluten and tries not to eat too much dairy it was very interesting!
In for a penny, in for a pound (Tim Waterstone) intrigues me as it is a novel by the man behind the bookstores. I haven't even looked to see what the plot is about but would be good if it draws on his experience.

I apologise for the poor quality of the photos; I ended up working until 7pm on Monday, the day that I got them and it was dark when I got home.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Baking from the cupboards 7

I didn't think there would be a Baking from the cupboards post this week as K is away skiing. Skiing did not actually get arranged until 3 days before departure, and he has ended up going to an apartment belonging to a friend of his brother (with whom he has gone...). Having anticipated him flying and staying in a chalet, I had to work some real baking from the cupboards magic to ensure that the boys had some cake with them for when they get back from the slopes each day. My initial reaction was - what do I need to go out and buy to make cake - and then, I remembered that I had amply stocked cupboards, and what I really needed to do was choose between another edition of the Farmhouse Fruitcake, the pumpkin puree cake or some parkin...

The parkin won:

I think I may have baked it a little too long, and it should really be kept for a week, but as long as they have resisted it past the weekend it should be ok.

I also produced some "Smarties" cookies from the Eat Me! cookbook - I didn't use smarties, but non-additive chocolate beans "Whizzers". These are far more magical than Smarties - my colleague and I use them to help us through our Thursday late night duty (I took one in for my colleague on the day of baking as it was evening duty and she was most appreciative)

Can't wait for K to get back though, and think I will finally get around to making gingerbread cupcakes to welcome him home! (Plus, he's been in his new job for a month now, so I think I can probably get away with doing shortbread hippopotami for the lunchbox :D)

Monday, 7 March 2011

February Reading

It's a little bit belated, but here is my February reading roundup. I realised that I've not really written much about books on the blog in the last month, with the exception of writing about Next World Novella. I think that was mainly due to the excitement of Persephone Reading Weekend, and also my ongoing book storage saga (and I think I have something lined up which will resolve my problems for quite a while - fingers crossed that it all works out...). Also, I have been storming through my Virago Modern Classics reading and managed to read and blog about 18 titles on my other blog - so do pop by to see those if you haven't already

I love using my Persephone diary to record my reading, and include pictures of this months pages followed by this month's list.

Toddler on the run Mackay, Shena VMC

The Royal Ballet School Streatfield, Noel NF

Dawn and the school spirit war Martin, Ann C

Playing the harlot Avis, Patricia VMC

Healthy gluten free cooking

Copycat Jones, Allen Frewin C RR
Custom of the country Wharton, Edith VMC

Kristy + Bart Martin, Ann C

Rebel at the C.S. EBD C RR
Very dead of night Hocking, Mary

Movie Girl Lace, Kate LBD

A winter's tale Ashley, Trisha

Illyrian Spring Bridge, Ann

Salzburg: Eyewitness guide

Girls in tears Wilson, Jacqueline C RR
Miss Ranskell comes home Todd, Barbara Euphran P RR
The good divorce guide Odone, Christina

John Brown's body Barker, A.L. VMC

What a week to make a stand Rushton, Rosie C RR
Giles and Sue live the good life

Marriage Ferrier, Susan VMC

A kind man Hill, Susan

The ponder heart Welty, Eudora VMC

Scandalous risks Howatch, Susan

The bridesmaid's pact Williams, Julia

New girls Gutcheon, Beth

What a week to play it cool Rushton, Rosie C RR
Next world novella Politycki, Mattias

The heartbreaker Howatch, Susan

What a week to make a move Rushton, Rosie C RR
Marriage of Hermione Crompton, Richmal

Stepmother's support group Baker, Sam

Consequences Delafield, E.M. P RR
The growing summer Streatfeild, Noel C RR
For better, for worse Fearnley-Whittinghstall, Jane NF

Death comes for the archbishop Cather, Willa VMC

More than marriage Pritchett, Nia

Peking picnic Bridge, Ann VMC

The bright prison Mortimer, Penelope

Hackenfeller's Ape Brophy, Brigid VMC

Rose in Bloom Alcott, Louisa VMC

Sugar mother Jolley, Elizabeth VMC

Moonlighting Lace, Kate LBD

Living with books Powers, Alan NF

Trust me, I'm a vet Woodman, Cathy

Against the tide Davis, Sharron AB RR
Leadon Hill Crompton, Richmal

Buy, sell and move house Which guides NF

Skate school: stars on ice Woodward, Kay C

Domestic pleasures Gutcheon, Beth

Judith Streatfield, Noel RR

A wreath for the enemy Frankau, Pamela VMC

The Aunt's book

One way of love Woolsey, Gamel VMC

Falling out of fashion Yampolsky LBD

Dead man's cove St John, Lauren C

Ellen Foster Gibbs, Kaye VMC

Separate beds Buchan, Elizabeth

Bread and butter stories Norton, Mary VMC

Tell it to a stranger Berridge, Elizabeth P SS RR
Young person's guide to the ballet Streatfield, Noel C NF
Mrs Frensham describes a circle Crompton, Richmal

Smart vs Pretty Frankel, Valerie LBD

Fidelity Glaspell, Susan P RR
A favourite of the gods Bedford, Sybille VMC

Apple bough Streatfield, Noel C RR

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Baking special edition: Free cakes for kids - Spongebob

I have recently become involved with an organisation called Free cakes for kids; an idea which came over from the states, there are now a number of groups in the UK, including in Oxford. As it says on the website:

"Free cakes for kids is a community service to families who find it difficult to provide a birthday cake for their child. The cakes are baked by volunteers from your community – with your kid’s favourite theme or style. The service is free, friendly and confidential"

They also organise community baking sessions, which I am hoping to be involved with.

But I got asked to make my first cake for this weekend (bakers donate time and the ingredients); I was told that the birthday child was a four year old girl and had visions of making something pink and sparkly. When I rang up her Mum to ask what she would like, I was told that her favourite thing were the Zingzillas. Not having heard of them (though I have subsequently found that they are quite cute, although possibly difficult to make out of cake), I asked what else she liked, and her Mum said Spongebob. "Well", I thought to myself "at least Spongebob is square (for those of you who don't know - and I didn't - until K enlightened me, Spongebob is a sponge who lives at the bottom of the sea and goes on adventures with his friend the starfish). I spent most of the week agonising about how to do it, looking for pictures on the internet, and then in my cake decorating magazine I saw a picture of a Spongebob that someone else had made. And here is my version!

I am seriously proud of this as have never made anything like it before! I gave it to the little girl's Dad and he was impressed that anyone would make a cake, and I really hope that the little girl likes it.

I still managed to bake from the cupboards - I used drinking chocolate from our Christmas hamper to make the chocolate cake and the buttercream, I used writing icing and blue food colouring from my cupboards, and the only thing I bought was a packet of yellow sugarpaste for £1.95.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Cross stitch birthday card

I wondered last year what I could do with the cross-stitches I seemed to be churning out at a rate of knots, and found the solution - make them into very special cards! This design was obviously meant to celebrate a birthday, so I took it along to Paperchase and chose a card and envelope to go with it. All I needed to do then was fray the edges and glue it on and I was able to save K from having to go out and choose a card for his Mum. I hope she liked it.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Rotating bookcase

The latest weapon in my armoury for bookstorage is shown above: my rather lovely new Rotating Bookcase. Part of my problem if you recall, was that I had run out of wall space against which to locate bookcases (and as we rent, it is not an option for me to build any shelves up by the ceiling!). However, I did identify that we had plenty of carpet space left. Sadly, the bibliochaise which I mentioned before turned out to be well out of my price range (£4.5k?!), but I found an alternative - rotating bookcases. A quick search on ebay found that although they are normally about £400, it is possible to pick one up for considerably less. A few days later, I was the proud owner of the above for £58, including delivery by the owner to K's work.

Of course, that makes it sound a little more straightforward than it actually was. After making arrangements for the delivery, K asked "how big is it?". I had rather forgotten to take note of its dimensions and we were both slightly horrified that it was 26" square and 31" tall. We wondered whether it would fit in the car. Fortunately it did, and K managed to get it up to the flat. It then sat in the centre of our sitting room, rather overwhelming everything. As you can see, I have now managed to find room for it. Sadly, it doesn't have room to rotate and I did have to send a small bookcase out to K's storage unit, but you can't have everything!

The shelves are a substantial size and I should probably reorganise my books in due course to make use of the fact that it can accommodate bigger books (probably non fiction), but I am also happy to have found a place for my cross-stitching basket.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Baking from the cupboards 6

Quite a lot of baking has been going on in the last week in the Cardigan Girl kitchen. I made cake for two other people besides K this week.

I started with a Farmhouse fruit cake; I thought that K should perhaps have something slightly more nutritious after eating his way through the sachertorte (and actually I think he was quite pleased too!). This used up half my bag of mixed fruit and the last apple in the fridge. I made a big 18cm sized cake and gave half of it to my father. Sadly, most of it disappeared before the light was good enough for a photo, so this sad slice was all that remained on Sunday morning:
I also made sparkley lemon drizzle cupcakes for my colleague who is going to print my wedding invitations; I'd taken a larger version of them to his housewarming party back in September but it had disappeared before he and his partner got any of it! No photo of those, sadly.

I made some cheese and thyme biscuits with a recipe from my Baking Magic book - these made a wonderful pre-dinner nibble and also were a perfect accompaniment to green detox soup (and look - there is SUN shining across them in the picture that I took)

The big bake of this week however, was Benedict Bars. I've never come across them before until I read about them on another blog, and then found the original recipe here. I am not sure what the origin of the name is, but they are essentially a layer of shortbread covered with a layer of jam and then a flaked almond, butter and sugar topping, all baked together. I've been wondering what to do with the two packets of flaked almonds that have been languishing in my cupboards for ages - here was the answer...

K is away skiing next week so I may experiment with a gluten free bake. Or I may have a bit of a break to work on my most enermous cross stitch (more about that another time)